Former Vice President Joe Biden is using a newly released plan on racial justice to tout his existing modest marijuana reform proposals.
The presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee said he would “decriminalize the use of cannabis and automatically expunge all prior cannabis use convictions” as part of a “Plan For Black America” his campaign released on Monday.
He also talked about changing broader criminal justice policies, including ending the crack-versus-cocaine sentencing disparity, repealing mandatory minimums, abolishing the death penalty and diverting people with minor drug convictions to treatment instead of prisons.
While advocates generally welcome the proposals, they argue that they do not go far enough to fully address racial equity. Notably absent from his plan is legalizing marijuana for adult use—something activists say is critical to ensure equity and restorative justice.
"Considering the long violent history of the United States war on communities color, this plan is a half measure at best,” Jason Ortiz, president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, told Marijuana Moment. “True equity for our communities would include an admission that our federal government committed a massive crime through the war on drugs, and a plan to undue that damage and make our communities whole.”
“True equity must include a release of all cannabis prisoners, massive community investment and a legal cannabis marketplace owned and operated primarily by people of color,” he added. “I’m not convinced Biden is there yet but we must all continue to push him for the sake our communities."
What’s more, while Biden’s treatment for substance misuse proposal is viewed as superior to incarceration, advocates largely oppose forcing individuals into treatment as a mandate from drug courts, which continue to handle a health issue through a criminal justice lens.
Drug policy reform advocates have widely criticized Biden’s record as a senator, condemning his role in authoring and promoting punitive anti-drug laws that contributed to mass incarceration.
And his ongoing opposition to legalization—a policy supported by a majority of his party’s voters, particularly young people—has been a lingering source of frustration.“Biden’s plan calls for the decriminalization of cannabis and the end of all incarceration for drug abuse,” Ortiz said.
“While that flies in stark contrast to the vice president’s record, it is a promising sign that more modern approaches to criminal justice are being discussed and taken seriously by his campaign.”
By comparison, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who was also a top contender as a presidential candidate before dropping out and endorsing Biden last month, has been a strong champion of comprehensive reform, pledging to legalize marijuana in all 50 states on his first day in office through executive action, for example.
While Biden has thus far refused to embrace federal legalization, he and Sanders did announce the formation of a joint criminal justice working group comprised of individuals who’ve worked with both of them, and it stands to reason that cannabis policy could be one area of discussion.
That said, asked last month what issues he thinks Biden will come around to that he campaigned on, Sanders declined to include marijuana legalization in that list.
The former vice president’s new racial justice plan doesn’t feature any new drug policy proposals; rather, it highlights previous measures that have particular relevance to minority communities.
“Today, too many people are incarcerated in the United States—and too many of them are African American,” the plan states. “To build safe and healthy communities, we need to rethink who we’re sending to prison, how we treat those in prison, and how we help them get the health care, education, jobs, and housing they need to successfully rejoin society after they serve their time. As President, Biden will strengthen America’s commitment to justice and reform our criminal justice system.”